A huge stone that fell from Jerusalem's Western Wall, barely missing a worshipper, was removed Wednesday as experts took the incident as a sign from above to examine the ancient

structure's stability.

Two millennia after thousands of labourers had set it in place, the fallen stone was hoisted up by an unassuming crane operator named Yossi.

Roughly a metre high and wide and weighing approximately 400 kilogrammes (880 pounds), the stone fell onto a prayer platform on Monday and just missed a woman.

On Wednesday, the crane gently laid the stone down on two planks of wood at a nearby zoned-off clearing. Three smaller rocks that had broken off from the stone when it dislodged were also moved.

Neither professionals from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) nor rabbis from the Western Wall administration could remember such an occurrence.

It took place at a less-visited part of the wall, where men and women are permitted to pray together contrary to Orthodox Jewish practice at the holy site's nearby main plaza.

Believers were offering interpretations of what they considered to be a divine sign, with theories ranging from discontent over recent parliamentary legislation to hints of imminent redemption.

"Nobody can comprehend divine reasoning, but we are commanded to be roused," ultra-Orthodox Jewish activist Shimshon Elboim said at the site.

The wall, located in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, is the holiest place at which Jews are allowed to pray.

They revere it as the remains of a supporting wall of their biblical second temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

There are millions of visits per year.

Immediately above it is the flashpoint shrine known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the holiest in Judaism, revered as the spot where the two biblical Jewish temples once stood.

To Muslims it is the Haram al-Sharif compound, the third-holiest in Islam after Mecca and Medina, and home to the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

- 'Wake-up call' -

To Amit Reem, the Jerusalem district archaeologist for the IAA, the rare incident was "a wake-up call" to inspect the many antiquities and archaeological sites in Jerusalem's Old City.

To evaluate the wall's condition, the IAA was set to build scaffolding across it, with teams of professionals using radar, ultra-sound and lasers to examine "each and every stone", Reem said.

Experts would then be able to understand why the stone -- actually a portion of one of the wall's massive stone blocks -- broke off and offer solutions to prevent future occurences.

"We think that the reason is a natural reason -- perhaps water that infiltrated the stone, maybe roots of plants that grew into the stone," the archaeologist said.

The fact that such occurences are so rare was testimony to Herod's "genius construction method" according to Reem.

The Roman-era ruler had the walls constructed to expand the surface of the mount on which he built the lavish Jewish second temple, he said.

He used limestone quarried from what is currently northern Jerusalem, with masons meticulously hewing each block "with millimetric precision" to fit in snug rows, before being rolled to the construction site.

The stone blocks, weighing up to hundreds of tonnes each and up to four metres in depth, were laid without bonding materials.

Experts are unsure how they were lifted into place, though perhaps by cranes or dirt ramps.

Each row of blocks was set back slightly from the preceding one, creating a subtle pyramid structure barely visible from the front, but which afforded stability.

Yossi Algrabli, owner of a crane company who came with his most trusted employee to lift the stone, lauded Herod's workmanship.

"You see the holiness here," he said while holding the remote control of the massive crane.

"Whenever I come here, my heart melts." afp